We found out that Dad had stage 4 brain cancer in November 2017. As a family, we collectively held our breath as we listened to University Hospital doctors tell Dad to get his affairs in order and that folks with his diagnosis had fourteen months to live. As you can imagine, we cried a lot during that time. And we were angry—of all the people, why did this have to happen to him?
But most of all, we wanted to make good use of this last gift of time. We asked Dad about his bucket list—where did he want to travel? Ireland? Greece? What foods did he want to eat? The zuppa di casa at Mia Bella in Little Italy? The Reuben sandwich at Slyman’s deli? What opportunities had he left undone?
It should not have surprised any of us that he had no such list. Instead, he set about the business of daily living—babysitting his grandchildren, playing hide-and-go-seek with the younger ones and watching the older kiddos play basketball and run track at Forest Hills and Cain Park. He planted cucumbers and tomatoes in his garden, made sure the bird feeders were full of seeds, and trimmed trees near the house in the spring and fall.
Our dad was a magnanimous father. His love for us was a river that overflowed its banks. When my brother, Kevin, was eight, he said he wanted a treehouse. So Dad, who had no woodworking background, went and talked to the shop teachers at the high school, and the guys at the local hardware, and built my brother a double-decker, with a rope swing that allowed you to jump out of the treehouse and swing up over our garage. Most parents would have thought smaller and safer, but when it came to his kids, Dad was all about adventure. He drove all over Northeast Ohio—hours and hours in rain, sleet, and snow—to watch my brother, John, run track races that lasted about sixty seconds. When it came to his kids, no distance was too far. Dad mortgaged his house to pay for my wedding and never told me about it. He took up watercolors with my sister, Jenny, proudly producing landscapes and skylines that he felt, in his words, “an average fourth grader would have been proud of.” But they learned to paint together. He made time to learn something my sister loved.
It was not that my dad did not have a bucket list, but rather, as my sister pointed out, we, the friends and family in his life—WE WERE HIS BUCKET LIST. Dad never traveled to Ireland, but my brother John did, and he kissed the Blarney stone for him. My dad never played college basketball, but he lived vicariously through and cheered endlessly for our local teams. Dad never published a book or painted much he was proud of, but I wrote one and my sister has framed paintings on people’s walls. Dad never sang a solo, but he watched my brother Kevin belt out many of them, and Dad joined a choir to perform beside both his sons when he retired. They sang the national anthem at the Indians games every season.
My dad was the best father, grandpa, brother, coach, friend, and whistler most of us have ever known. If you learn anything from his life, please learn this: First, love magnanimously—listen to your family, neighbors, and friends. Open your heart and make time for them. Forgive. Be generous of mind and loyal of heart—give people every opportunity to succeed. And, second, be one another’s bucket list.
Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh is the author of Here Be Dragons: A Parent’s Guide to Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, and the Unfathomable Joy of the Journey, a memoir about the sweet and wonderful misery of raising children with someone you love. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband, three kids, and a marshmallow dog named Higgins.
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